When M. David Eckel, Allen C. Speight, and I asked a group of philosophers to consider the future of the philosophy of religion—in a pair of symposia, a lecture series, a graduate seminar, and finally in the essays collected in our recent book, The Future of the Philosophy of Religion (Springer 2021)—the question already felt urgent. One of the world’s most ancient subjects, the philosophy of religion in the modern era has come to feel not so much venerable, as antiquated, tired, passé. Obsolete. Many problems lodged deep in the roots of our field have been exposed in recent decades, and it has become increasingly clear that rethinking some of its once central aspects is now necessary. The business of evaluating religious truth claims and beliefs, once our meat and potatoes, is now thought to be fraught with bias and ideology, and normativity in the study of religion is a topic of serious concern. An exaggerated focus on beliefs, to the exclusion of rigorous treatments of religious practices and communities, has impoverished the philosophical conception of religion in general. Traditional Christian philosophical concerns—the rationality of theism, the problem of evil, the relationship between faith and reason—have crowded out other issues for centuries, and religions that don’t achieve the vaunted status of “World Religion” barely receive any attention at all, relegated to a sort of underclass on the discipline’s periphery. The philosophy of religion has, for a very long time, been insular, narrow, and myopic.
In recent years, some excellent work has begun to address these concerns by imagining a new vision for the discipline, one that is more inclusive and global, focused on lived realities and practices in equal measure alongside beliefs, and sensitive to its own strengths and limitations. We have in mind books like John Schellenberg’s Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion (Cornell 2005), Nick Trakakis’s The End of Philosophy of Religion (Continuum 2008), Wesley Wildman’s Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry (SUNY 2010), Tyler Roberts’s Encountering Religion (Columbia 2013), Crockett, Putt, and Robbins’s The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion (Indiana 2014), Kevin Schilbrack’s Philosophy and the Study of Religion: A Manifesto (Wiley 2014), and Thomas Lewis’s Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion (Oxford 2015), to consider just a few.
These books help to dispel concerns about the irrelevance of philosophy in the twenty-first century by clearly and forcefully reminding us that philosophy and religion, however they may be defined, are enduring aspects of human life. It is also true that the practice of the philosophy of religion is a way to confront and overcome the sense of despair that sometimes looms over a discipline in flux. As we discovered in a recent series of lectures on the concept of “hope,” philosophy of religion not only can be about hope, but it can help encourage it. If it is a sense of wonder that moves human beings to philosophize, as both Plato and Aristotle would have it, then the proliferation of new and pressing questions in our age can only help propel our discipline forward. If we remain awake to that sense of wonder, in ourselves, our audiences, and our interlocutors, we can construct a worthy future and build a sturdier foundation atop the despairs of the present moment and the missteps of our past.
This is the challenge that our authors pursue, on a variety of topics that share a common feature: the desire to move the discipline forward, rather than to go back over old ground. But this is not to neglect the past. On the contrary, our authors demonstrate a keen sensitivity to the historical conditions that frame the present and supply the materials to envisage the future. The questions raised are fresh, complex, and pressing. We are very much looking forward to hearing thoughts and opinions from the community, both on the particular issues raised and the broader concerns about the future of the philosophy of religion.
Some questions that we hope might prompt blog responses from you:
1) Wesley Wildman’s essay at the start of the volume outlines four transformations important for future possibilities within the philosophy of religion—the development of a global perspective in the study of religion, the challenge of critical theory, the inclusion of multiple disciplinary perspectives, and a broad-based interest in the study of religious practices and the solution of real-world problems. From your perspective on the field, what developments in these areas (or other issues not mentioned in the survey results he discusses) do you think will be most critical for the future of the philosophy of religion in the years ahead?
2) It has become almost reflexive in philosophical circles these days to emphasize the overcoming of the opposition between analytic and continental approaches in philosophy. This volume notably draws on scholars with both analytic and continental training—as well as those whose departmental homes range across philosophy, religious studies, and theology/divinity. To what extent do you think these traditional divisions of discipline and approach will continue to matter to the future of the discipline—and what synergies do you think are likely to result if they are in fact disappearing?
3) Dan Arnold’s essay, among others, focuses on the role of normativity in our discipline. What does our discipline contribute to the ongoing discussion of normativity in both philosophy and religion? And what norms or values do you think will be most relevant for the future practice of the philosophy of religion?
4) A number of the essays (Schilbrack, Knepper, Chignell and Speight among others) focus new attention on the question of practices across a wide set of domains—religious/liturgical, social, and even artistic. What will the future of the philosophy of religion offer for reconstruing the relation between theory and practice? And how might increased attention on religious practices transform the philosophy of religion?
5) Many of our essays testify to the restrictedness of our discipline—demographically, of course, in the (still) heavily Caucasian and male representation among faculty and students, but also in its topical and thematic concerns (with Christian and theistic elements having played a predominant role). What new initiatives could help to open up both kinds of restriction, and how will a new attention to contemporary questions of race, ethnicity, and gender transform the focus of the philosophy of religion?